A step-by-step, beginner's approach to researching ancestry in the United States.
research your family tree?
you ever wondered about your ancestry?
If so, you’re among a growing number of people who are using modern
tools to become amateur genealogists, discovering many details about their histories
- in part before even stepping outside their front doors! Even if the idea of hunting for long-lost,
long-dead ancestors doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps the promise of a legacy for
future generations will. It’s likely
that one of your descendants – possibly even someone who hasn’t yet been born –
will want to know about the family’s history, and you can be the person to
provide the answers. Similarly, if
you’re the last in a family line, researching or even publishing a family history
can be a poignant way to make sure your clan’s mark is indelible.
you overwhelmed at the prospect of such a monumental task? Don’t worry;
researching your family tree isn’t hard and only requires patience and
investigative curiosity. The steps described below will start you on the
road to unlocking your family’s past. Several
of the steps don’t have to be completed in the order presented here, but each
step is an important one in the road to discovery.
One: Establish a Goal
you begin the search for long lost ancestors, you should first ask yourself
what your research goal is. Are you generally curious about your
ancestry, or do you have a specific ancestor about whom you’d like to learn
more? Is there a family story about being related to someone historically
significant? Mentally answering questions like these will help direct
your research and keep you from spinning your wheels.
in mind that researching ancestry can be a task to last a lifetime. After
all, with each generation you go back in time, the number of ancestors doubles
(2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents and so on.) Don’t expect
to ‘finish’ your tree – it’s impossible! - unless you have a concrete goal,
such as to focus on the migration of a particular branch of your family.
next step in researching your family tree is to find out what you already
know. Start with you and your siblings. Next, list your parents and
their siblings. And so on. Go back as far as you
can, and fill in any information that comes to mind; it doesn’t matter right
now whether all you can remember is a relative’s first name or even a
nickname. You’ll be filling in gaps later. And don’t worry about organizing it just yet;
we’ll be doing that after the brainstorming session.
you have finished writing the list, look it over. You may be surprised at
how much you already knew! It will also become clear pretty quickly which
branches you know the most about, and which ones need some investigation.
Three: Get Organized
compiling the list of known ancestors, you should organize it so that additions
can be easily and quickly made. There
are many ways to do this, from notebook binders to computer software, but the
important thing is that you find a method that works for you. Many people purchase ancestry software, which
is readily available both online and in major computer retail stores. The benefit of these programs is that it
organizes the generations for you, and calculates relationships between
people. You won’t have to try to figure
out how many times removed one cousin is from another. The software also allows you to add
additional information about the people, such as occupations, places of
residence, religious affiliations, and other notes. The downside of using computer software
impacts people who do not have laptop computers; the file isn’t portable
without one, and you’ll have to print out any information you want to take with
you. Once you have entered a few hundred
relatives (which won’t take as long as you think!) you’ll have a lot to print
more low-tech solution is to purchase a few notebooks and split your information
into logical divisions, such as by surname or by maternal or paternal lines. This will keep your information organized,
and allows for portability. The method
works equally well with manila folders, stored in a file cabinet.
people use a combination of software and folders or notebooks for holding their
precious family data. For example, they
might store the ancestral information on a computer, but keep notebooks for
storing documents – such as birth, death, or marriage certificates – and
Four: Oral histories and Interviews
setting up your files, incomplete though they may still be, the next step in
the process is to ‘interview’ other members of your family, preferably older
members who might remember the generations you never knew. Interviews are simply casual question and
answer sessions in which you try to fill in the gaps in your research. It’s a good idea to record the conversation
for later review, but if your subject is uncomfortable with this, copious note
taking will probably work just fine. Use
your research as a guide for questions, but keep in mind that interview
subjects often wander in conversation as one memory leads to another, so just
write down everything you hear, even if it seems insignificant, and plan to
organize it later. Also, don’t
challenge the accuracy of your interviewee’s information, but be prepared to
verify or disprove almost everything he or she says. Often, a name or date might be slightly off,
or an old ‘uncle’ might really have been simply a close family friend. Don’t worry about this, though; it’s easier
to disprove something than to work from scratch. If you have trouble thinking
of questions to ask your relative, you can find lists of such questions on most
can also use interviews to get more complete information about the life of your
subject. Most people like to talk about
their life experiences, and taking notes on these stories will yield a
well-rounded, thorough family tree. You
will quickly find that it is the personal memoirs and memories – not just
names, dates and locations - that make the data meaningful and interesting.
Five: The Internet
you’ve compiled your data, and enlisted the help of relatives, it’s time to
turn to online resources. There are
several major genealogy websites which offer both free and member-only
information. You can search the Social
Security Death Index for free on several sites, which is very useful for
learning the vital statistics of many twentieth-century ancestors. You should also check out the online
resources provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka the
Mormon Church) because the Church has compiled genealogical data on millions of
people. It’s free to use their site,
which has a powerful search engine.
There are also local branches of Family History Centers, also provided
by the LDS Church, in which you can examine rolls
of microfilm containing original census data from all available censuses (up to
1930) and other official data.
addition to searching for records, most online resources also contain message
boards and forums, designated by surname or specific geographical location. You can enter a query about an individual or
branch of your family, and find other people researching the same name. It’s quite possible to make connections with
distant cousins in this manner, and ultimately to obtain copies of records or
photos that they might possess.
extremely useful reason to begin your research online is that many sites have
lists of volunteers who will photograph cemeteries or landmarks, look up
records in their local courthouses, or complete other types of research where
they live. This allows you to gain
valuable artifacts without having to travel.
People in the genealogy community tend to help each other out, and these
volunteers will often do the research and mail it to you for only the cost of
copies, film development, and postage.
Just make sure to give specific questions, not instructions like, “Find
everything you can on the O’Connell family.”
cautionary note: like anything else on
the Internet, the information presented is only as good as the person who
submitted it. Many people post their
family trees with little or no verification (especially those who claim links
to royal families), so use caution before integrating this information into
your own data. However, this warning
doesn’t apply to official, digitized versions of government documents – like
census, Social Security or other official vital information – whose accuracy
can generally be depended upon. Also,
many of the trees uploaded to the Web by researchers contain contact data, so
you should always email the user and ask specific questions about their
you have gleaned information from websites and message boards, you may want to
obtain copies of official documents such as birth, marriage and death
certificates, which were generally recorded after 1900. If you can’t find a volunteer to help out, a
trip to the town or city will be necessary.
City or county courthouses often house these documents, and can make
either certified (official) or non-official copies of the documents. Some states, however, require proof of
kinship to the individual about whom you are seeking information, so find out
what the requirements are before making the trip. Also, copies can often be ordered online or
by phone, so you might be able to save yourself a trip.
libraries are often a very valuable resource for genealogical research. Most libraries have a local history or
genealogy section, where you’ll usually find books about the town or even
specific families, microfilm archives of local newspapers (which will include
obituaries) and, occasionally, indices of vital statistics for the area. More and more libraries are beginning to
digitize their holdings, but until this process is complete, your best bet is a
physical visit to the library. Be sure
to bring money for copies, and a notebook for taking notes.
many towns often have historical societies which collect memorabilia and
genealogical data from the town’s history.
Here you will find volunteer experts who, if they don’t have the
information you need, will be able to point you in the right direction. These volunteers will be familiar with common
surnames of the area, and might even be able to introduce you to a distant
relative. Keep in mind that many
historical societies, especially in the New England area, are only open from
late Spring through early Fall, so call ahead to make sure someone will be at
the center during your visit.
people don’t think about cemeteries when they first begin the search for their
ancestors, but cemeteries can be a valuable destination during your
investigation. In addition to possibly
providing the only physical representation left of the people you’re seeking,
they can also help to confirm dates, relationships and locales. Often, you will find tombstones of relatives
you didn’t know about: children who died young, or a sibling of someone you’re
researching. Generally, cemeteries have
offices in which you can inquire about your ancestors – most keep good
records – but don’t rule out a row-by-row search for your relatives. Once you can get past the eerie feeling of
walking among the dead, you might find that cemeteries can be as peaceful as
they are important for your research.
Eight: What to do with your family tree information
now that you’ve started to collect data of all kinds, what do you do with
it? If you have a generally complete
account of a certain branch of your family, you might consider publishing the
information in book form. There are also
many books on the market to direct you should you decide to write a family
memoir. Many small presses cater to
genealogy clients who will be printing small numbers of copies, for reasonable
rates. You may also want to donate a copy to the appropriate local library or
historical society so that others who might be doing research can benefit from
you still need more information before publishing, sending blank questionnaires
to members of your family might be the quickest way to gain information about
them and their immediate family members.
This can also be helpful when preparing for a family reunion; you can
take the information and pictures, and post them, tree-style, on a wall for the
reunion guests to peruse, and you can compile the information into booklets for
them to take home from the reunion. Not
only is this a nice parting gesture, but you’ve now insured that a copy of the
family’s ancestral information resides with each family group.
you decide to do with your information, you should treat it as a valuable
possession. If you have used computer
software to log all your relatives, back up the files regularly, or even put it
on a CD to be kept in a safety deposit box or fire safe.
whether or not you officially publish the data, you should consider at least
printing it out and sharing it with interested family members. They might be overwhelmed by the sheer amount
of dates and names, but there’s bound to be an interesting story or two about
your family’s history to intrigue even your most cynical kin. After all, the events, stories and memories
are the reason why you began the search for your family’s history in the first